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Lake Sevan, Armenia
Lake Sevan Information and Facts
Lake Sevan is one of the largest freshwater high-altitude lakes in the world, and the largest lake in Armenia and the Transcaucasus Region. The basin of the lake makes up 1/6th of the total size of the country.
Geography and Hydrology
Lake Sevan is the only one of the three great lakes of Historical Armenian Kingdom, referred to as “the Seas of Armenia”, which is still between the boundaries of the country. The other two lakes are Lake Van and Lake Urmia. The lake is located in the central part of the Republic of Armenia in the Gegharkunik Province, at an altitude of 1900 meters above sea level. It lays in the northern part of the Armenian Volcanic Highland.
Sevan is made up of two connected parts: the smaller and deeper Maly Sevan on the northwest, with a maximum depth of 86 meters, and the larger Bolshoy Sevan on the southeast, with a maximum depth of 40 meters. The Major Sevan is said to be around 1 million years old, whilst Minor Sevan is merely 100,000 years old. The lake’s bedrock is formed mainly from tufa, clinker, and limestone.
The lake is the main source of irrigation water in the region and provides low-cost electricity, fishing, recreation and tourism opportunities. The Sevan Peninsula, formerly an island, is home to a medieval monastery, a popular tourist attraction.
The lake is fed by 28 rivers and streams. 10% of the outgoing water is drained by the Hrazdan River, which has 6 hydroelectric plants on it, whilst the remaining 90% simply evaporates. The River has been artificially regulated since 1933.
20% of the country’s livestock is raised in the lake basin, whilst 90% of Armenia’s fish catch comes from the lake.
Because of its high mountain location, the weather at Lake Sevan is relatively cooler than in other parts of the country. On the shore the mean temperature is -6OC in January and 16OC in July. The average annual temperature is 5OC. The Lake Sevan area witnesses 2600-2800 hours of sunshine each year. The weather here is generally windy, with an average wind speed of 4 meters/second.
The Lake Sevan region is home to a great diversity of plants, and its shores are known as the greatest artificial woodland in the country. Around half of Armenia’s flora can be found here, meaning more than 1600 species of vascular plants. Steppe, sub-alpine, and alpine vegetation can be seen most commonly here. Junipers are a frequent find. Because of a decrease in the water level a number of alien plants have been planted in the basin, such as pine, poplar, acacia and willow.
The lake and the wetlands are a significant breeding, resting, foraging and wintering area for migratory waterfowl. It is an important breeding ground for the Armenian gull, of which 4-5000 pairs can often be encountered at Lake Sevan. The Bewick’s swan, the lesser white-fronted goose, the red-crested pochard, the ferruginous duck and the great black-headed gull are other birds which visit the lake. The great egret, the mute swan and the whooper swan stop at the lake between October and December.
The lakeshores are home to 36 species of mammals, including the European hare, red fox, the wolf and the weasel. 4 species of amphibians and 18 species of reptiles can also be found at the lake. There are 6 species of fish in Lake Sevan, and because of environmental issues, all are in decline. The Sevan trout is an endemic species, but it is endangered, since competitors like common whitefish, goldfish and crayfish were introduced. If it were to become extinct, the species will still survive in the Kyrgyz lake of Issik-Kul, where it was introduced in the 1970s. The bojak and the winter bakhtak are also endemic to Lake Sevan.
One of the civil engineers which eventually caused the disaster at the Aral Sea published a study in 1910, suggesting the lowering of the lake level to 45 meters, and using its waters for irrigation and hydroelectricity. During the Stalin era the lake level was reduced by 55 meters and on the newly gained shores oak trees were planted. They even introduced a few trout species to increase the fishery production.
In 1933 the Armenian Supreme Soviet began to deepen the river bed of the Hrazdan and to construct a tunnel 40 meters below the water level. Although this project was not consulted with locals, it was still finished by 1949. This resulted in the reduction of the water’s volume from 58.5 billion m3 to 34 billion m3 and its surface area from 1416.2 km2 to 1238.1 km2.
An Aral-like disaster was avoided only because the Stalin era came to an end in 1956, and the project was reviewed. The Sevan Committee suggested to “raise the water level as much as possible”. Hydroelectric power stations on the lake’s outflow were to be replaced by thermal stations. In 1964 the lake started to bloom, which led to the eutrophication of the lake.
In 1981 a nearly 50 kilometer long tunnel was constructed, in aim of diverting water from the Arpa River to Lake Sevan near Artsvanist. The lake level only rose 1.5 meters. Another 21.7 kilometer long tunnel was in plans, but was never finished due to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Armenian government completed the Vorotan tunnel in 2004, and the lake’s levels were stabilized 20 meters below its original level, with the lake surface area of 940 km2.
Thanks to these projects, Lake Sevan has witnessed ecological degradation, increased eutrophication and detrimental impact on its biological diversity. Because the water level was lowered, the biological mass of macrophyte fell. This type of human interaction has drastically changed the ecosystem of Lake Sevan for the worse.
History of the Island Monastery
The monastery of Sevanavank was originally built on an island, but because of the decline of water levels, it has become a peninsula in the 20th century. The monastery was originally founded by King Ashot I, who was the first king of the Bagratid Kingdom. The monastery complex was originally made up of 3 chueches, but nowadays only two remain: St. Arakelots and Astvatsatsin. The religious complex was used for pilgrimage, worship and as a place of exile for Armenian noblemen, who fell into disgrace.
Ashot I used the monastery as his residency and from here he led battles against the invading Arabs in 859. Monks and clergy joined the fight against the Arabs and continuously led battles to protect the monastery, for more than 500 years, until Persians and Ottomans divided the Armenian Kingdom. These monks specialized in natural medicine, and some of their cures are still being used today.
The monastery functioned until the last monk left in 1930. Today it is maintained by the church, which uses it as a summer retreat for seminarians.
Gegharkuni, the Sea of Gegham and Lychnitis are just some of the historical names which referred to today’s Lake Sevan. From the early Modern Era until the first half of the 20th century the lake was known as Gokcha, which meant “blue water” in Turkic language. The word “sevan” actually means “black van”, referring to Lake Van. It is said that the Armenians came to Sevan from the Lake Van area, and the lake reminded them of Van, only its waters were “blacker”.
For a long time it was believed that the word “sevan” was connected to a monastery on a small island on the lake, called “Sev Vank”, which was built with black tuff. This was known as the etymology of the word sevan. But researchers quickly realized that the theory was wrong, since the word is actually older than the monastery itself.
Tourism and Recreation
Numerous beaches can be found on Lake Sevan, of which the most popular is a 2.5 km long beach extending northwest from the peninsula. There are plenty of resorts along the beach, and tourists can enjoy swimming, sunbathing, jet skiing, surfing, sailing, camping and picnicking there. A less-developed beach can be found on the eastern shore from Tsovagyugh to Shorzha with some small cabins. The area is popular among tourists especially in July and August.
The most famous cultural monument is the monastery complex on the peninsula. On the lake’s western shores the Hayravank monastery can be found. Noratus is the largest khachkar (Armenian cross stones) cemetery in the world. When the water level fell many archaeological artifacts were found, dating back to more than 2000 years ago. These can be seen on display at a museum in Yerevan.